Tuesday, 2 December 2014

The dubious conquest of Canaan

When the Israelites travel north from Sinai and reach the borders of Canaan, they send spies to scout the land (Numbers 13). They are so disheartened by the strength of the cities there that God curses them for lack of faith, condemning them to continue to wander the deserts until a new generation has replaced the old. Finally the Israelites return to the promised land, and on the plains of Moab the elderly Moses reveals the laws his people must obey if they are to inherit Canaan. He warns of the evils of idolatry, as well as laying down various social rules and insisting they worship in a single sanctuary (Deuteronomy 26:2). The fate of Israel depends upon its obedience to the covenant.

Moses, who is the dominant figure among the Israelites for four of the Torah’s five books, dies on the border and never enters Canaan. This is surprising because he was especially favoured: one of the few who got to speak to God face to face. An explanation is given in Numbers 20, where we see the Israelites in the wilderness of Zin without water. Yahweh tells Moses to gather his people and “tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water”. Instead he strikes it twice with his stick, saying “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” The water flows, but Yahweh immediately says:

Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them. (Numbers 20:12)

Moses and Aaron have gravely offended Yahweh. Firstly, Moses uses his stick instead of speaking to the rock as he was told. Secondly, by claiming to be ones bringing water out of the rock, they are forgetting that the power is Yahweh’s not theirs. If Yahweh’s punishment seems harsh, it is entirely consistent with his brutal character, which is nowhere clearer than during the genocidal conquest of Canaan.

Moses’ death ends both the book of Deuteronomy and the Torah. The books that follow, known as the Deuteronomistic History – Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings – relate the ongoing history of the Israelites from the conquering of the promised land, through the kingships of David and Solomon, to the destruction of the first Temple and the Babylonian exile.

The Israelites march around the walls of Jericho.
The new leader is Joshua, Moses’ right-hand man, who was one of the twelve spies sent into Canaan in Numbers 13. He and Caleb were the only spies who did not return full of pessimism, which is why Yahweh allows them to enter the promised land instead of letting them die out like everyone else. The book of Joshua is in two parts. The first twelve chapters report the invasion and conquest: once the Israelite multitude has crossed the River Jordan, Joshua leads a military campaign to conquer the new land, which belongs to seven relatively small nations. The Israelites give these nations the option to clear out, the price of refusal being annihilation. The reason for this ethnic cleansing is that the Canaanites could corrupt the Israelites with their sinful, idolatrous ways. The great kings of Canaan refuse, and Joshua smashes them to fulfil Israel’s national destiny. This process includes the famous episode of the destruction of the walls of Jericho, after which the Israelites turn their genocidal rhetoric into practice:

Then they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword. (Joshua 6:21)

The Israelites take Ai, then are tricked into a treaty by Gibeon. Five Amorite kings join forces (chapter 10) but their forces are crushed, aided by huge hailstones from heaven. Joshua’s army takes the cities of the south then turns north to take Hazor. Eventually, Joshua takes “the whole land” – Yahweh’s divine promise is fulfilled, and the Canaanites are (mostly) annihilated. The land is then divided between the twelve tribes. The seven years of conquest are followed by seven more of settlement. In the last few chapters, Joshua calls the tribes together to renew the covenant, after which he dies and leadership of the Israelites passes to a set of leaders known as judges.

Joshua vs history

According to the Bible, Joshua’s army exterminates several terrified populations of Canaan as it captures city after city, a saga that makes much more entertaining reading than the dreary edicts of Deuteronomy. As it is taken as historical truth by many Jews and Christians, it’s tempting to ask if any of it really happened.

Many of the cities reportedly smashed by the Israelites – Jericho, Ai, Gibeon, Lachish, etc – were real places that have been found and excavated. We would expect to find clear evidence of Joshua’s campaign in the form of destroyed settlements, new site names, changes in pottery styles, and so on. The invasion’s likely date, leading on from our timescale for the Exodus, was the late 13th century BCE, and in some cities there is indeed evidence of fire damage inflicted during that century. But many of the sites, such as Ai and Gibeon, weren’t even inhabited – including Jericho, which at the time didn’t have any walls. The exception is the important town of Hazor, which shows evidence of a catastrophic fire in the late 13th century BCE. It’s possible that Israelites caused this. However, we must remember that this is the period of the Late Bronze Age Collapse, a major crisis that left the ancient Near East in ruins. The major attack on Egyptian hegemony in this time came from the Sea Peoples, who are at least as likely to have burned Hazor. We don’t know who the Sea Peoples were, or precisely how much destruction they were responsible for, but the wrecking of the Canaanite cities happened over a century, not in one seven-year campaign.

It seems unlikely that the Israelites, a ragbag of former slaves with no military experience, could have fought a triumphant war against strong Canaanite cities equipped with forts and chariots. What makes it even more unlikely is that the region was not a series of independent cities. We know that from the 15th to the 12th centuries BCE, Canaan was controlled by Egypt, and guarded by Egyptian garrisons. The king in the late 13th century was Ramses II, a strong king unlikely to tolerate any military challenge in the region, and the Egyptian presence continues after the supposed date of Joshua’s conquest. It is unthinkable that the Egyptians would leave such a huge attack against their Levantine possessions unrecorded, yet the only mention of the Israelites is on the Merneptah stele, which records they were crushingly defeated [1].

There are more problems. If we are to believe Numbers 26:51, the Israelites had over 600,000 fighting men at their disposal. With an army of that size, Joshua could not only have conquered Canaan, he could have carried on to conquer the entire known world. Alexander the Great probably commanded less than a tenth of that figure. Then there is the claim that the Israelites conquered Canaan in a single campaign in which no indigenous person or animal was spared.

Thus the LORD gave to Israel all the land that he swore to give to their fathers. And they took possession of it, and they settled there. And the LORD gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their fathers. Not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the LORD had given all their enemies into their hands. [Joshua 22:43-44.]

However the narrative of struggle against surrounding peoples continues in later books after Joshua’s death, indicating that the colonial process actually took much longer, and that many Canaanites survived Joshua’s campaign. The very first verse of Judges has the Israelites asking: “Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?” Even Joshua contradicts itself by noting that Joshua failed to conquer certain peoples and regions. One example is the Jebusites in Jerusalem; according to 2 Samuel that city was not taken until King David’s time.

The Bible therefore, as we already knew, is highly unreliable. Not only is it a poor match for the facts, but even its own account is not consistent.

For something more substantial we must turn to archaeology, which tells us that around 1200 BCE a series of hilltop villages started to spring up on the outskirts of existing Canaanite towns. These small settlements were remote and self-sufficient, with little or no social stratification, and their cultural remains (such as pottery) suggest a semi-nomadic people who became farmers. As productivity in Canaan failed, pastoralists had to grow their own grain, and settle. The Israelites therefore were probably a culture indigenous to Canaan, possibly growing from a merging of local peoples who began to establish farming settlements during the Bronze Age Collapse. Hebrew for example is really just a dialect of Canaanite, and Israelite material culture is Canaanite.

Finkelstein and Silberman argue that the historical evidence directly contradicts the Bible:

The emergence of early Israel was an outcome of the collapse of the Canaanite culture, not its cause. And most of the Israelites did not come from outside Canaan – they emerged from within it. There was no mass Exodus from Egypt. There was no violent conquest of Canaan. Most of the people who formed early Israel were local people – the same people whom we see in the highlands throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages. The early Israelites were – irony of ironies – themselves originally Canaanites!

If they were Canaanites themselves, why did the Israelites’ texts promote these myths about conquering the region from outside? Genesis and Exodus too reinforce the idea that the Israelites were not native to Canaan, claiming they originated in Mesopotamia, then colonised Canaan only after escaping from a long period in Egypt. The narrative seems to want to obscure the Israelites’ Canaanite origins, perhaps as part of forming their identity: the myths say who you are, but also who you are not. In part the Israelites may have been flattering themselves as triumphant warriors. More importantly, the myth emphasises their distinctiveness, perhaps to strengthen their sense of solidarity and to encourage them to obey the Torah rather than Canaanite pagan traditions. The Israelites had invented the concept of a single all-powerful god, in a context where the peoples around them worshipped several gods. By posing as outsiders, they distanced themselves from the idolatrous cultures. The story of their servitude in Egypt is a distortion of the likely truth that the early Israelites were subservient to Egypt in Canaan.

The wickedness of the indigenous peoples – i.e., worshipping their own gods, not Yahweh – supposedly justifies the genocidal campaign that mostly wipes them out. However, the book that follows Joshua, Judges, warns us:

“And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel. And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals.” (Judges 2:10-11)

Yet again, the Israelites quickly forget about the god who has manifested himself directly in their history, and fall into the very corruption that the genocide was meant to obliterate.

Joshua’s narrative of the Israelites’ national origins is not history. It is a myth of the establishment of a state, strewn with brave deeds and impossible episodes such as the stopping of the sun. It was probably put together from a variety of sources: king lists, tribal histories, misrememberings of real events, and folk memories from distant and troubled times, recrafted for literary reasons into a single book of stirring war stories. The general message is clear. When the Israelites obey God’s laws they are victorious; when they don’t, they are punished with setbacks.

This suggests another possible reason for why Joshua is written the way it is. If we accept Richard Elliott Friedman’s persuasive account, the book was written during the 7th century BCE during the reign of Josiah (with a further edit during the Exile). The book emphasised possession of a specific portion of land as part of Israel’s national destiny – the territories outlined in Joshua were precisely the area that Josiah hoped to conquer from his base in Judah, and rule over as the founder of new regional empire. Whether or not Joshua matches historical and archaeological reality is irrelevant to its purpose: it is not history but religious propaganda aimed at defining a nation in the service of a contemporary geopolitical project.

In recent decades, the racism and territorialism of Joshua has been served a new purpose – to provide religious legitimacy for the modern Zionist state in its colonisation of the occupied Palestinian territories.


[1] “The people of Israel is laid waste – their crops are not.”

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